ROME – If women were protons and men were electrons, the Vatican would be a pretty negatively charged electric field, meaning that men generally own the stage.
The female advisory board for the Pontifical Council for Culture wishes to change that, sending an “electric shock” that will open discussion on women’s roles in the Church.
“The Church is a male-dominated world, but the [wider] world in which it exists is both male and female,” Consuelo Corradi, vice rector for research and international relations at the LUMSA University of Rome, told Crux.
“The global church needs to enter a continued dialogue with women,” Corradi said.
That’s precisely what Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Vatican’s formerly all-male Pontifical Council for Culture, tried to do by creating a permanent advisory board entirely comprised by women.
The Women’s Consultation Group was born in the spring of 2014 to aid the council on the theme “Female Cultures,” and the Italian cardinal was so satisfied with the results that he decided to make the group permanent in June 2015.
The board meets four times a year for its plenary session, and its main function is to address the issues that are being studied by the department and offer suggestions and recommendations.
The female board “above all else wants to be a female gaze toward all the activities of our dicastery,” Ravasi told reporters at the presentation of the group on March 7.
Corradi, the coordinator of the group, emphasized that though “it’s important that within the Church women have a position where they are listened to,” the board is ready to take it to the next level, jumping from a simple counseling and observing organism to an actual motor for change.
Inside the Female Advisory Board
There are currently 37 women on the advisory board, hailing from various countries, professing different religions and working in a wide-array of fields, from theologians to doctors, and actresses to CEOs.
Despite their diversity, all the women in the board reside in Italy. Corradi listed that fact as a “major limitation,” and expressed the desire to extend membership to include women who do not live on the peninsula.
“The hope is to reach out to many other places,” she said, adding that the Church needs “many more little [female] boards around the globe.”
Diversity is a main issue within the group, not only regarding its composition, but also in relation to men. “Are women similar or different from men? This is the theme that brought us to life,” Corradi said.
The board coordinator said that this was one of the most debated issues during the early sessions, and one where many different points of view arose among the members.
“We want to be present. OK. But what do we want to do that’s different from men? What is the language, different from men’s, that we want to elaborate? What are the different objectives, the different work styles? Do we want to be there just to be there?” Corradi asked.
Trying to understand the concrete contributions that women can bring to the debate within the Church was among the first of several speed bumps for the board, which Corradi said was overcome by recognizing that “there is no such thing as a single point of view belonging to women,” but many, which together create the female prospective.
The next steps for women in the Catholic Church
In a lengthy interview with the German Catholic site katholisch.de, Ravasi said that “women deacons would be a possibility in my eyes,” but encouraged the Church to discuss other important functions that women could take on, such as the structural administration of parishes, church finances or architectural planning.
Though recognizing that opening the priesthood for women is an “interesting subject,” Corradi said that this is not an issue that she feels particularly invested in.
“I believe that the most important issue is to give them [women] a position of equal dignity compared to men,” she said, quickly adding that this does not necessarily imply women priests.
“It’s not by imitating the male models that women carve out a place for themselves. That would be a mistake,” Corradi said. “The Church must imagine what role women want to have by listening to them. Women want to have a role that is stronger and more dignified.”
Speaking from personal experience, she added that many nuns and lay women that she knows are not interested in becoming priests, but in being a part of the decision-making process and having a stronger voice.
“If we reduce this to the issue of women priests, it’s a very ‘male’ answer, but it’s not the right one,” Corradi added.
But putting aside the debate on women in the priesthood does not mean closing the doors to further inclusion. Corradi said that during the last meeting of the advisory board, a group of four women from Valencia, Spain, announced their intention to create a similar board in their diocese.
“We gave a little electric shock and showed that it’s possible,” Corradi said. “It’s not an issue tied to money or organization. It’s a relatively informal group, with just a little bit of will it can be done. If we could have a few thousand around the world by the end of 2017, that would be great!”
She added that these boards could multiply not only within other Vatican dicasteries but also at a diocesan level around the globe.
“If it’s possible, why not do it?” Corradi asked.
Though the advisory boards are certainly a good start, it is only a first step toward ensuring a bigger presence for women within the Church. “I think the change does not come simply from turning our words to actions,” Corradi said. “The real change will happen when the pontifical council will have women on its board.”
So far, the Pontifical Council for Culture only has men on its official board, some of them from the laity, and according to Corradi as well as Ravasi, the time has come for this to change.
Future initiatives of the Vatican’s women
On the agenda for the Vatican’s female contingent is a theme very dear to the Pontifical Council at the moment, concerning the effects of scientific development on human behavior. This upcoming November, the women on the board will be invited to write notes and offer opinions.
Another important subject is the struggle felt by many women to have both a career and a family. “Women have a great desire to give themselves to their work fully, but almost all of them want to maintain a dimension of affection and family life,” Corradi said. “The problem is conciliation.”
She added that especially the businesswomen on the board are looking into projects and initiatives to further the discussion.
On the occasion of the international day of violence against women, which falls on November 25, the board is preparing a project aimed at making young men more involved in addressing the issue.
“Even if women are the victims of violence we cannot change the phenomenon without men,” Corradi said.
“Young men only have negative male role models when touching on this subject: the aggressor, the killer, the beating father, the violent husband,” she said. “We want to show that fathers can protect, help, guide, support and be a point of reference.”
Finally, the board wants to address the ways in which women can help further interreligious dialogue in light of the diversity of faiths among its members, which include Muslims, Jews and Agnostics. Corradi said they would like to plan an event on the subject by the end of 2017.
“I am a firm believer in women’s diversity,” she said, adding that by increasing the number of such boards the Church will benefit from the unique female point of view.
“The world is made of men and women,” Corradi said. “The role of the Church is to recognize this within itself.”